On May 4th, 2011, I was invited to attend the lecture on sustainable agriculture being given by Prince Charles, at Georgetown University. Yes, that Prince Charles, the outspoken proponent of organic farming, and the future king of England. For a young farmer from West Virginia, it was an opportunity that I never expected to receive in my lifetime.
A few months earlier, I had been on my knees in the February mud, repairing a chicken shelter in advance of spring weather, when my cell phone rang. It was a catering company, asking if our farm could provide two hundred pounds of grass fed, free range lamb for the special event. Our lamb was to be a featured dish on the lunch menu, and included an invitation to the presentation itself.
Let me get this straight. Have the chance to meet Prince Charles, get paid, and be able to eat my own food? I thought I must have bumped my head on a low hanging rafter, and dreamed up the entire conversation. Suffice to say, I marked the date on my calendar.
The ticket I never got to use,forever a conversation piece.
The morning of May 4th arrived, and like most farmers I know, I tried to try to pack as much work into my schedule that day as time reasonably permitted. As it turned out, the health department permit on our farmers market food truck was about to expire. Since I was going to be in the D.C. area anyway, I decided to carefully structure my morning to include a speedy inspection. The Prince’s speech was at 11; if I got to the Health Department by 8, I would have all the time in the world to make it across the city to Georgetown.
The prior two years, the process had taken less than an hour. The inspector had made a few checks of temperatures, asked about food handling procedures, and turned on all of the appliances to make sure they worked. One fresh inspection sticker later, I had been turned loose.
Factoring in traffic delays, I needed to leave the Health Department no later than 10 to comfortably make it to Georgetown before 11. Towards that end, I arrived just a little before 8, and made my way upstairs to the Food Safety office.
I dropped off my renewal application, and took a seat to wait for the inspector. After a half hour passed without any activity, I put down my magazine, and approached the secretary.
“Any word on when the inspector will be out?” I asked.
She swiveled in her chair, and peered down a long hall. “He’s still back there, looking for your file. He can’t seem to find your paper work.”
That’s odd, I told her. We had been doing markets in that county for over ten years, and I had stood in the exact same spot the year before, personally handing over a sheaf of papers to make our food truck street legal. Finally, the inspector came walking down the hall, shaking his head.
“Can’t find anything at all on you guys. You’re Smith Meadows, right? Anything else it might be under?”
They tried Pritchard, my last name, to no avail. I glanced at my watch. It was getting awfully close to 9.
He shrugged. “Looks like I’m going to need you to fill out those forms again. Sorry about that. Your file has just vanished.”
I was beginning to have a bad feeling about all of this. I filled out the forms as quickly as possible, and eventually got the inspector downstairs to my truck. It was now past 9:30.
I had started the generator, which powered the entire truck, when I first arrived. The refrigerator was already nice and cool, the lights nice and bright, and the hood was whooshing persuasively. He walked to the back of the truck, and turned on the hot water.
Oh no! I said to myself. I realized that I had neglected to turn on the water heater. It took at least a half hour to warm up to the proper temperature. The inspector made it clear he was not impressed by this oversight.
“I’m going to go ahead and pass you,” he said reluctantly, after I had opened my cabinets and shown him that, indeed, a professional grade, fully functioning water heater really existed. “But when we do our market inspection, if there’s no hot water, I’m shutting you down. Immediately.”
“Yes sir,” I said. I glanced surreptitiously at my watch. It was 10:05. “We’ll have it turned on, I promise.”
“Good. Now let me go ahead and…” he flipped through his folder, searching. “Hmm. Looks like I left the new inspection sticker up in the office. Oh well,” he said, sighing, and climbing out of the truck, “guess we’ve got to go back upstairs.”
This was no good, I said to myself, no good at all. By the time he got back to the truck, and affixed the sticker to the side, it was twenty past ten. Calm down, I told myself. If I left at that very moment, I still could possibly make it. I jumped behind the wheel, and started the engine.
“Mr. Pritchard!” the inspector shouted to me, as I prepared to drive off.
I stuck my head out of the driver’s side window. “Yes?”
“The secretary just called down. You forgot to leave your check. Can’t have you driving off without paying.”
I quickly patted my shirt pocket. There, folded neatly in half, was the check I had brought for the inspection fee, and forgotten to give. I bounded up the steps three at a time, and gave the secretary the delinquent check. I politely turned down her offer to print me out a receipt.
It was now 10:35. I rushed back out to the truck, and made a mad dash towards Georgetown.
The whole gambit was hopeless. Even though by some miracle I managed to find a parking spot for my oversized truck, it was still fifteen blocks from campus. I arrived at the university gates, rivulets of sweat streaming down my face, at 11:50.
“I’m so sorry Mr. Pritchard,” a well dressed young man told me as I passed through the media entrance. “You’ve missed Prince Charles. He finished up about ten minutes ago.”
My heart sank. Like I had for much of my career, I found myself guilty of having tried to do too much within too short a timeframe, and paying the price when it didn’t work out. Trying to manage a food truck, while simultaneously running a diversified livestock farm, was challenge enough; I should have known that squeezing in a visit with a member of Britain’s Royal Family was a laughable enterprise from the outset.
Still, I consoled myself on the long drive home, it had been an honor simply to be invited, and despite sabotaging myself, I had come close to pulling it all off. The dream had been fun while it lasted. And farming, perhaps more than any other job, is nothing without dreams.